Sandra Dick: Soaring costs signal the end of the love affair with the car

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It’s a habit that’s hard to break, writes Sandra Dick, but the wheel has been wrenched away from us

YOU’VE done everything together down the years, cruising through wind, rain and even occasional and unexpected sunshine, weathering the good times and the bad, over bumpy roads and round winding lanes. Just, as the song goes, the two of you. Yet even a love as strong as this can hit the skids. And now, for a few of us at least, that fine romance – that one that kicked off in our teenage years and outlasted many of our real-life love affairs – may be running on empty.

With petrol costs soaring, it seems that the only solution is to call time on our love affair with our cars.

Yesterday, MPs called on the Chancellor to rethink plans for a fuel duty rise scheduled for January which, they argued, would plunge hard-up families into greater financial woe. A proposed 3p tax increase in early 2012, followed by a further 5p in August would, they pointed out, hit families where it hurts hardest – right in the pocket.

They argued that taxes alone already cost the average driver £700 a year. Indeed, 60 per cent of what motorists pay at the pump isn’t for the fuel they put in their car, it’s for the taxman: with the average price of petrol at 133p per litre, only 53p goes to the oil company, 22p ends up as VAT and 58p goes to the Treasury.

Add into the equation insurance costs, MoT fees, road tax, maintenance and the sheer price of buying a motor and, suddenly, that trip to work, the shops, the school run and wherever else our four wheels usually take us, adds up to an eye-watering annual sum.

It’s enough to make letting the bus and train take the strain appear an attractive alternative. But, even if our finances are squeezed to breaking point, can we bring ourselves to call time on our precious car?

According to recent research for Sainsbury’s Car Insurance, more than a million motorists have, in the past year, have been driven to ditch their wheels because of rising costs.

The research estimated that the average car owner has been hit with a 22.9 per cent increase in the cost of keeping their vehicle on the road. Many drove less, shared cars or, in an estimated 3.5 million cases, downsized their vehicle.

Certainly, according to Lothian Buses’ most recent passenger figures, many of us are opting for public transport. Last year saw a 1.9 per cent rise in the number of passengers – 109 million over the 12 months – and a leap in profits from £8.5m to £13m.

Meanwhile, according to Mark Sydenham of The Bike Station in Causewayside, which renovates and recycles bikes, an increasing number of us are swapping four wheels for surprisingly faster, healthier and significantly cheaper two wheels.

“Usually people come to us for a bike for a combination of health and financial reasons. And quite often the reason people continue to cycle is not the reason they started,” he said. “Some begin thinking it will help them get a bit fitter and discover that it’s actually much quicker and a lot cheaper than taking the car.

“We’re not exactly Amsterdam, but there are signs over the past two years that more people in Edinburgh are using bikes to get around.”

As proof, The Bike Station yesterday organised its annual bike survey at two busy Edinburgh locations – and in both cases found impressive increases in cycle traffic.

The North Edinburgh Network – the vast urban car-free network that stretches from Granton to Dalry, Leith to Stockbridge – registered a 25 per cent increase in cyclists, while the Causewayside area accounted for a 14 per cent rise.

“These are large numbers,” stresses Mark. “There has been a real increase in cycling over the past two years, possibly because as more people are on the road cycling, more people see them and are inclined to start cycling themselves. More cyclists on the road generates more people to get involved.”

Once the proud owner of a car, Mark severed his addiction to four wheels more than 20 years ago in favour of two: “It was too expensive,” he says.

“You adapt to having a bike. You don’t do a huge weekly shop because you won’t be able to carry it all home on a bike, so you buy what you need more often. That’s a much more sensible way to do things anyway. That said, I did see someone cycling outside our shop with a bag of cement, so anything is possible.”

Mark adds: “There’s a lot of myths, but once people try cycling instead of the car, they often find it’s faster and, obviously, cheaper. And if I do need a car, I organise one through the City Car Club.”

The idea of a pay-as-you-go “green” car sharing initiative was pioneered by Edinburgh city council in 1998 and later taken on by a private company as the first club of its kind in the UK. For an annual fee of £50, members can use low-emission cars dotted around the city which they use for as long as they need, paying only for the time they use it.

It’s estimated that those who drive around 7000 miles a year could save around £1500 a year through the scheme once MoTs and maintenance costs for a vehicle are taken into account.

The Car Club has more than 4000 members in Edinburgh and more than 100 cars at 83 bays citywide, including the airport and Waverley station. Similar clubs now run in around 14 UK cities.

It might not be enough to loosen our grip on the car keys but there is one other alternative that’s cheap, good for us and won’t cost the earth either financially or environmentally . . . coat on, hood up, head down and walk.

ALL HANDS TO THE PUMPS

£100

How much it may cost to fill up a car soon

£3000

How much it costs to run the average car per year

32 million

The amount of fuel consumed in tonnes in that time

55 billion

The estimated number of miles driven in the UK this year